Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What passes for extravagance

OK, I know I said I wouldn't be posting during our vacation, but this is just a quick post to let you know about what passes for extravagance in our ecofrugal household:

The latest issue of Mother Earth News contained an article about pressure cookers that piqued my husband's interest. By cooking food with high-pressure steam, these nifty tools dramatically cut cooking time, thereby saving energy as well. (My parents had one of these years ago—I still remember the little valve on the top rocking hypnotically back and forth as the broccoli cooked—but lately they seem to have fallen out of favor with the rise of the microwave.) Although it sounded intriguing, he had to admit that we didn't really "need" it, and it probably wouldn't be worth investing $50 or more in a new "toy" for the kitchen.

On Christmas Day, however, the newspaper brought a plethora of fliers advertising after-Christmas sales, including one from JC Penney that showed a five-quart pressure cooker marked down to $20. And, on top of that, the sale flier included a coupon good for $10 off any purchase of $25 or more on the 26th and 27th. Spending the extra $5 wouldn't be a problem, since Penney's is Brian's preferred supplier for underwear, which he actually did need (and which happened to be on sale as well, with a buy-one-get-one-half-price offer). And the Penney's store was in an area that we wanted to visit anyway, to go to Penzey's Spices (a local store that's a great source for intriguing spice blends, specifically a veggie soup base that makes just about any meatless soup taste richer and more flavorful) and the local Half Price Books (self-explanatory)—so we wouldn't even need to make an extra trip.

We did have a moment of indecision in the store itself, when we discovered that the 5-packs of undies were considerably more expensive than Brian had remembered, and he realized that the underwear purchase alone would put us over the $25 limit to take advantage of the coupon. Since we didn't actually need to buy the pressure cooker to get our discount—even though that was what had brought us to the store in the first place—he thought perhaps it would be too frivolous to buy it. But in the end he decided, hey, it's Christmas—it's okay to indulge ourselves. By spending ten dollars (after coupon) on an energy-saving, time-saving, money-saving device for the kitchen that will probably be used primarily to cook dry beans and brown rice.

This is how the ecofrugal lifestyle distorts your perceptions after a while. I truly think Brian felt as extravagant and devil-may-care buying that $10 pressure cooker as other men his age do dropping $30,000 on a little red sports car. And I suspect that, in the end, he'll get just as much pleasure out of it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frugal meets elegant

This will probably be my last post for a while, since we're off to Indiana soon to celebrate the holidays with my in-laws. I have a whole list of profound, serious topics I could write about for this farewell post, such as why Europeans save more than Americans do, or whether the celebrated female love of shopping is nothing more than a response to social disempowerment, or whether working less and spending less could be the key to a longer, happier life. But the fact is, the topic I really feel most drawn to right now is holiday parties. Specifically, how to have one without spending a ridiculous amount of money.

This is actually inspired by an article that appeared three years ago in the New York Times, in which the writer challenged David Monn, party planner to the stars, to help him "design a transcendent holiday dinner party for eight at my West Village apartment on a recessionary budget — say, $30 a head." When this link turned up in the budget-oriented Tip Hero newsletter, the bulk of the responses were along the same lines as mine: "$30 a head is cheap?" Several respondents also found it ludicrous that the best the celebrated event planner could do with this austere budget was twice-baked potatoes for a main course, a store-bought cake for dessert, and paper snowflakes (like the ones you made in grade school) for decoration. How, the group wondered, did he ever manage to spend $240 on that?

So I decided to pose the same challenge to myself and see just how much more cheaply I could do it. My normal idea of a great holiday party is a potluck supper, caroling, and board games, but to make it a fair test, I challenged myself to plan the same type of party the author of the article wanted: an elegant dinner for eight, complete with holiday-themed decor. Since the closest thing our house has to a formal dining area is in our large downstairs room, guests would have to pass through a good bit of the house to get to it—so the decorations would have to cover not just the dining area itself, but also the living room, hall, and kitchen, to keep the mood going from the time guests walk in the door.

Fortunately, since tasteful holiday decorations tend to be natural and understated, they are easy to make quite cheaply. A Google search for "balsam centerpiece" reveals a variety of pieces ranging in price from $25 to $55 (plus shipping), but our local Christmas tree vendor will be glad to let you gather up an armload of trimmed-off evergreen branches for nothing, and pine cones are easily found under any convenient clump of pine trees. I can also gather clumps of red berries from the sidewalk near my neighbor's house, where a large holly tree obligingly drops them throughout December, and red pillar candles are just $2.50 each at IKEA. That means that for just $7.50, I could put a holiday centerpiece on the dining table and smaller ones in the living room and kitchen—and to keep the festive mood going along the the hallway, I'd deck out each of the doors with a single jingle-bell ornament (available in packs of six from the dollar store) hung from a length of colorful holiday ribbon (also from the dollar store). Total cost for decorations: $10.50 (or $12.50 if I give a tip to the tree sellers).

David Monn also spent some of the $240 budget on prettying up the table, using a $13 roll of what the article called "quilting batting" (though the audio slideshow calls it "bunting," which is probably more accurate) as a tablecloth. We happen to have a nice white tablecloth already that fits our dining table at full extension, but we don't have a matched set of eight napkins—and while we do have eight matched dinner plates, they're Corelleware, with a blue-and-green pattern that isn't particularly elegant or Christmasy. But no problem; I could just borrow my mom's china, a nice white with a simple gold rim that would fit into the holiday decorating scheme just fine. (She'd probably be happy to see it put to good use, since it just sits in a cabinet most of the year.) I might even decide to invest ten bucks in a set of marked-down napkins from Pier 1, since none of ours are Christmas-appropriate.

Which brings us to the all-important question of what to serve. This is the area where I won't skimp: I'll keep the meal as frugal as I can, but not if it means compromising on delicious. (No store-bought cake for me, thank you.) Consulting our recipe files, I found a main dish that's both elegant and frugal: butternut squash cassoulet, from Cooking Light magazine. To fill out the "transcendent" menu, I'd start with the citrus spinach salad from The Clueless Vegetarian, and conclude with one of my husband's famous homemade apple pies. Grocery list:

2 bunches spinach (organic): $5.00
4 large oranges (about 1.5 pounds) (organic): $2.25
1 Vidalia onion: $.50
1 head garlic: $.26
4 ounces bacon ends (from the Amish market, $4.00/lb): $1.00
2 yellow onions: $.22
1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds) (organic, sale price): $2.50
2 pounds dry white beans: $3.00
4 large Granny Smith apples (about 1.5 pounds) (organic): $3.00
1/2 lb. sugar (organic): $.80
1/2 lb. butter (sale price): $1.00
1 lb. flour (store brand): $.36
1 container vanilla ice cream (store brand): $2.50
Total: $22.39. This doesn't count the little bits of other ingredients—olive oil, vinegar, veggie broth, Parmesan cheese, herbs, spices, corn starch, and lemon juice—so if we tack on a couple of extra dollars for that, we can estimate that $25 will cover all the food.

The party in the article also included six bottles of Three-Buck Chuck, which seems like an awful lot of wine for eight people, especially if six of them are driving home. We're not really wine drinkers ourselves, but assuming that our guests are, we'll add on just two bottles for the six of them, to ensure that they can enjoy themselves and still make it home in one piece. So that makes another $6 for wine—or about $7 with tax.

So, tallying up the cost of my frugal party:
Food: $25
Wine: $7
Tableware: $10
Decorations: $12.50
Total: $54.50—less than 25 percent of what the couple in the Times spent. And I think my frugal menu and decor are every bit as elegant as David Fancy-Pants Monn's.


And on that note, I bid you all farewell for the time being, and happy holidays!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Holiday freebies

Just a quick post to say that Amazon.com is once again running their "25 Days of Free Holiday Music" giveaway. This musical advent calendar offers a different holiday-themed track each day, in a variety of genres. Selections to date have included "Greensleeves" as rendered by Mannheim Steamroller, Bing Crosby's version of "Adeste Fideles," and a version of "Deck the Halls" by, I kid you not, Twisted Sister. Even if you don't like the songs, reading the user comments can be highly entertaining: a remixed version of Duke Ellington's recording of "Jingle Bells" prompted such comments as "A good song ruined," "The worst holiday mistake made since colorizing It's a Wonderful Life," and "This took talent...I didn't think anyone could make Duke Ellington sound terrible."

Happy frugal holidays!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Last harvest

Today marks another milestone on the wheel of the year: the last harvest. We went out this morning and cleared away everything from our garden beds. We got several small clumps of broccoli off our broccoli plants (which never yielded a single compact head but instead grew into massive baobabs with tiny little heads of edible broccoli) and a whole big bowlful of arugula (which had apparently been growing there quietly all autumn, concealed by the weeds, until we cleared them away). After pulling out all the dead tomato vines and (we hope) all the dandelions, we made the beds nice and snug for winter with a six-inch blanket of leaves—gathered from our neighbors' curbs, since our own yard doesn't get enough leaves to fill even one bed—and, to bring in the winter properly, filled up the bird feeder. And so here we are, all settled in for winter—and if we start craving a taste of summer during the long dark nights ahead, we'll have a nice batch of arugula pesto all stashed away in the freezer.

Oh, SNAP!

That's "SNAP" as in "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program," the program formerly known as Food Stamps.

In its latest newsletter, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey talked about the difficulty of feeding a family on SNAP benefits and invited people to take the "Food Stamp challenge" for one week. The challenge is to get by on "about $4 per day worth of food or $30 per week– the average food stamp benefit." My initial reaction to this was, "Hmm, $30 a week, that's difficult," and then my almost immediate second reaction was, "Oh wait...is that $30 per person?" Because if so, our average weekly food budget for the two of us (roughly $55) already falls within this limit—and that's including all meals eaten out, which aren't covered under SNAP. For groceries only, we spend about $48 a week, which is well within the limit.

However, in order to keep our food budget this low, we use a variety of strategies that it's impossible to use when you're following the challenge for only a week. We buy certain items in bulk, for instance (such as my Fair Trade/organic coffee and cocoa, which we buy five pounds at a time from Dean's Beans), and stock up on others when there's a really good sale. But under the rules of this challenge, you must purchase all the food you eat during the week with your $30; you can't use any food you already have, and you can't accept any free food "from friends, family, or at work, including at receptions or briefings." (I really don't get that last one—do they really think that if you were on food benefits, you would refuse a free doughnut at a meeting?)

These limits mean that you can't:
  • Buy anything in bulk. Powdered milk costs a lot less per quart than fresh milk, but it comes in a 20-quart box for $10, which would eat up a third of your $30 budget. So you have to buy a gallon of fresh milk instead for $4, paying $1 a quart instead of 50 cents a quart.
  • Wait for a good sale. We would not, for example, be allowed to use any of the cheese we have stockpiled in the fridge, which was purchased on sale for $2 a pound; we'd have to go out and buy more specifically for the week, paying the regular price of $4 a pound or more.
  • Use any vegetables from your garden. SNAP benefits do cover garden seeds, but obviously a week is not long enough to buy seeds, plant them, let them grow, and harvest the crops—so anything grown prior to the start of the challenge is off limits. (I assume that foods you can forage for, such as dandelion greens, would still be allowed.)
  • Go out to eat at any time during the week, even just for a cup of coffee, because restaurants do not take SNAP.
  • Accept any invitations during the week, because that would be taking "free food from friends." I'm not sure whether that means you can't even bring your own food to a potluck; it seems to me that if you made your own contribution with food you purchased out of the SNAP funds, that should mean that you have the right to share your dish with others and eat from whatever they've brought. But the organizers of the challenge might still consider this to be accepting free food, since the only dish you actually paid for is the one that you brought.
In other words, living on $60 worth of food for just one week is a lot harder than sticking to a $60 weekly food budget for an entire year. And it would be practically impossible to do at any time during December, because the month is so packed with parties that you'd have to turn down invitations left and right to keep an entire week of your calendar free from them.

So, I've decided that if I'm going to tackle this challenge at all, I should do it in January, after all the holiday fuss is over—say, January 2 through 8. But I still haven't made up my mind whether it's worth it at all to take a "challenge" that seems so unrealistic as this one. What do you think? Is it worthwhile taking this contrived challenge just to prove that I can do it, or is it better to stick to my regular grocery buying practices, which actually save more money over the long run?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A modest ecofrugal proposal

Here's another quick post, this time to tell you about a story in today's Washington Post: "Recycle homes to fix America's housing crisis." The author, Nancy Welsh (founder of an organization that rehabilitates abandoned houses) points out that there are 3 million American homes now in foreclosure, and there are millions of Americans who lack affordable housing. Some are struggling to pay the rent, some are bunking with family or friends, and some are literally on the street. So rather than tear down the homes in an effort to reduce supply and drive up property values, why not restore these homes as affordable housing for the millions who need it? This plan, Welsh notes, "would also save millions of pounds of construction debris from our nation’s already overburdened landfills," as well as "deferring" millions of tons of CO2 emissions that would be produced by building an equivalent number of units from scratch.

Since ecofrugality is all about avoiding waste, recycling entire houses seems like ecofrugal thinking on a truly massive scale.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ecofrugal spirits in the material world

Just a quick post today to link to this cute little video produced by the Center for a New American Dream: "The High Price of Materialism." It's about the ways in which materialistic values and a lifestyle that centers around money are harmful to individuals and to society as a whole. One of the points it makes is that the more emphasis a society places on materialistic values, the less it places on "pro-social" values. That is, the more people care about money, the less they care about other people and about the environment. By the same token, when people focus more on "intrinsic values" such as "personal, social, and ecological well-being," they become less interested in materialism. This struck me as a very concise illustration of why the "eco" and "frugal" halves of frugality are natural allies: less spending means less waste and less damage to the environment.

It also, apparently, means a higher quality of life. In the video, psychologist Tim Kasser explains that the more people value money and material goods, the less happy they tend to be with their lives. By contrast, building a life that "expresses your intrinsic values"—more time with loved ones, meaningful work (even if it comes with a lower salary), and involvement in causes you care about—boosts quality of life in ways that more income, more expenses, and more material goodies can't. In fact, the research cited in the video indicates that not only is "eco" a natural companion for "frugal," but also that the word "frugal" itself, in its truest sense, refers not to deprivation, but to enrichment. In the modern world, frugality really does live up to the ancient origins of its Latin root, frux, meaning fruit: a frugal life is also a fruitful life, filled with joy and abundance that mere "stuff" can't provide.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fair Trade gets a bit less fair

For a few years now, I've been buying organic, Fair Trade certified coffee in bulk from a supplier in Massachusetts called Dean's Beans. By buying five pounds at a time from them, I was able to keep the price down below $10 a pound—which is still pretty expensive, but the best deal I'd ever managed to find for Fair Trade. (On the off chance that anyone reading this blog isn't already familiar with Fair Trade, the idea behind it is to ensure that farmers and craftspersons are paid a fair price for their goods. Various organizations offer Fair Trade labels, which certify that they have inspected the farm and ensured that it meets basic standards for worker treatment, sustainability, and so on. The international umbrella organization for such groups, Fairtrade International, has more information.)

On my most recent visit to the Dean's Beans site, however, I made two distressing discoveries. First, the cost of both coffee and shipping has gone up, pushing the price per pound to nearly $11; and second, in a possibly related development, Fair Trade USA (the most prominent certifier of Fair Trade goods in this country), has just split off from Fairtrade International and has lowered its standards to certify products with "as little as 2% Fair Trade ingredients." In other words, the familiar "Fair Trade Certified" logo is about to become all but meaningless. The folks at Dean's Beans predict that brands like Starbucks and Green Mountain will soon proudly promote themselves as "100 percent Fair Trade Certified," even though their actual supply chains won't have changed one bit.

Frustrated by these developments, I decided to check out the selection of Fair Trade coffees at Trader Joe's. I wanted to find out, first of all, whether they still offered any Fair Trade selections that came in at under $10 a pound, and second, whether their coffees were legitimately Fair Trade. The good news is that the answer to both questions was yes: Joe had several types of joe bearing Fair Trade labels, and all of them were marked as complying with the international standards—not the newly lowered standards of Fair Trade USA. And while not all of these coffees were under $10 a pound, several of them were. The bad news, for me at least, was that not one of these selections was available in decaf. So, for coffee drinkers who want the buzz—and a Fair Trade standard with some teeth—Trader Joe's looks like the way to go. But for those of us who can't handle the caffeine, it looks like Dean's Beans Mexican Chiapas decaf, at $45 for 5 pounds (plus $9 for shipping), is still the best deal in town.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Respect the Bird!

The Washington Post has an article today about a subject that's long been a pet peeve of mine: "Christmas creep." This phrase refers to the tendency of retailers to try and extend the Christmas shopping season as long as possible, often putting up their holiday greenery before Halloween. This sort of thing happens at other times of year as well (back-to-school sales start before school is even out, and fall decorations appear in mid-August when the mercury is at 92), and it always disturbs me to see just how much modern society has lost touch with the natural cycle of the seasons. However, Christmas creep is a particularly egregious example because it means that another perfectly good holiday, Thanksgiving, gets glossed over as if it didn't count. The grocery stores do take a bit of notice, but since food is pretty much the only thing people buy for Thanksgiving, all other retailers tend to ignore it and skip straight on to Christmas, with all its glitz and goodies. In fact, the very thing that makes Thanksgiving one of my favorite holidays—the fact that it's all about family and isn't a massive purchase-fest—is what leads most businesses to give it short shrift.

Well, it appears I'm not the only one who feels this way. A campaign called "Respect the Bird" is now taking shape on Facebook, urging people to give Thanksgiving the attention it deserves—and specifically, not to let the holiday weekend be "gobbled up" by Black Friday shopping. And while some stores are trying to push Black Friday sales as early as possible, actually opening up their doors on Thanksgiving Day itself, at least one—Nordstrom—is pushing back, with a tasteful sign explaining that you won't see any holiday decorations there until November 27, because "we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time." (This pleases me so much that it almost makes me want to go out and buy something at Nordstrom just to support them in their stance—but unfortunately, my ecofrugal instincts still rebel at their prices.)

The video that accompanies the article makes the point that "Thanksgiving is about being grateful for what we already have, while Christmas [at least the way it's often presented] is about going out and getting more." And especially in this economy, it seems like we could all do with a lot more of the former than the latter. (On a related note, those who object to having Christmas itself turned into a consumer-fest might like to take a look at the Simplify the Holidays campaign run by the Center for a New American Dream. The website offers a list of suggestions for ways to take the emphasis on "stuff" out of the winter holidays and refocus them on family, friendship, and, for the true believers, faith.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting rid of "stupid plastic"

Recently, the blog at GreenAmerica.org ran an entry about the evils of plastic. Most of it was stuff we've all heard before—it's ubiquitous, it's toxic, it kills baby sea turtles—but the author did concede that "There are a lot of great things that plastic has made possible, like artificial hearts, lightweight glasses, and Kevlar vests for police officers." So she summed up her position on plastic in the words of an activist interviewed in the documentary Bag It—"We’re not saying no to all plastic. We’re saying no to stupid plastic"—and announced that each Monday the blog would feature a new post on "how we’ve gotten stupid plastic out of our lives, and where we’re facing challenges." (In yesterday's post, for instance, she talks about the difficulty of eliminating plastic food packaging for someone who hates to cook.)

I like the idea of targeting "stupid plastic," rather than trying to eliminate all plastic (a goal that's almost certainly futile and quite possibly counterproductive). But it did kind of raise the question of just which plastics can be considered "stupid," and how you draw the line. Some products are easy to identify as "stupid," such as single-use grocery bags (which can be eliminated entirely with a single, reusable canvas bag). But other cases are trickier. Some products are clearly necessary (clothing, for instance) but don't necessarily have to be made out of plastic. But does that mean that products made of alternative materials are automatically better? Some readers of the blog seemed to think so, bragging about their wooden toothbrushes and metal toothpaste tubes. But I had to wonder: what about the environmental impact of cutting down trees to make those toothbrushes, and raising the pigs used for the bristles, and mining and smelting the metal to make the toothpaste tubes? Don't we have to take that into consideration? And if so, just how do we figure out which type of material is least harmful to the environment?

There's also durability to consider. Is a wooden toothbrush that gets tossed in the compost bin and replaced every three months a better choice than a plastic toothbrush with replaceable heads that gets used year after year, with only the heads being replaced? What about a nylon shopping bag that wears better than a cotton canvas bag? And let's not forget the impact of shipping. Glass bottles may be less toxic than plastic ones (though not necessarily safer, since they can break) and easier to recycle, but they're also a lot heavier. So if all soft drinks were still packaged in glass bottles, how much more fuel would be required to ship them around the country? How would the amount of petroleum used in transporting the heavier bottles compare to the amount used in producing the lighter ones? Is it even possible to calculate?

I don't pretend to have the answers to these questions, and I'm not sure anyone does. So speaking for myself, I'm going to continue to focus my anti-plastic efforts on the "stupid plastics" that I know are stupid: namely, the ones that can be eliminated completely with no negative impact (and in many cases, a positive impact) on my quality of life. So here are a few examples of plastic items that I have no doubts about giving up—and others that I'm going to be holding onto for a while:
  • As mentioned above, single-use plastic grocery bags are a definite "don't need" for me. However, I have no plans to give up my polyester ChicoBag, which I think more than makes up for its own modest plastic content by being so portable that it's easily tucked in my purse, ensuring that I'll never be caught out without a shopping bag and need to bring home a disposable one.
  • I'm also not planning to give up plastic garbage bags (what would I replace them with?). However, I do cut down on the use of them by producing less trash, so I only need to take it out every couple of weeks.
  • I have never bought bottled water, which, as I mentioned in this post over a year ago, is neither healthier nor, according to most taste tests, better tasting than tap water, which is virtually free. (However, rather than invest in a $20 eco-friendly aluminum flask for carrying tap water on the go, as some green organizations recommend, I simply bought a $1.50 glass bottle of Snapple, drank the contents, and rinsed it out.)
  • I'm certainly not giving up my computer, printer, and other peripherals, with all the plastic parts they contain. However, in the seven years I've owned my (now ridiculously outdated) HP inkjet printer, I've bought only one plastic replacement cartridge for it, thanks to an ink refill kit that has paid for itself many times over. And, by keeping all my equipment so long past what most would consider its expiration date, I'm reducing the demand for new plastic stuff.
  • I plan to continue buying orange juice in plastic bottles (the good stuff) whenever it's on sale. The #1 plastic bottles are recyclable, while the cardboard cartons have to go in the trash. (Frozen OJ concentrate does have less packaging, but even it has some that's nonrecyclable—and it's actually more expensive than the good stuff purchased on sale.)
  • I get most of my music in digital download form these days, so I don't need to fill up my house with more polycarbonate CDs. We do buy the occasional DVD, but more often we borrow them from the library, or find free stuff to watch on Hulu and other sites.
That's all that comes to mind at the moment. Would anyone else care to weigh in with examples of plastics that are definitely "stupid"—or not so stupid?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eco Thanksgiving vs. frugal Thanksgiving

The latest batch of supermarket fliers to arrive at my door included one from A&P that prominently advertised frozen whole turkey at an amazing 49 cents a pound. I remember my dad describing 59 cents a pound as a good price for turkey when I was a kid, back in the 80s, so 49 cents a pound today seemed like a truly incredible deal, and it got me thinking: with all the talk about how much food prices have risen lately, just how cheaply is it possible to put together a Thanksgiving dinner if you buy everything on sale? Three years ago, in a post on the Dollar Stretcher forums, I calculated the cost of my family's traditional Thanksgiving meal—turkey, stuffing, gravy made from the drippings, potatoes, veggies, cranberry sauce, and apple and pumpkin pies, for about 10 people—at about $34. Would it still be possible to get the meal for that price?

After examining all the store fliers, I concluded that the deal I'd spotted at the A&P was the best available price for turkey. ShopRite store was offering a free turkey, but you had to spend $300 at the store in a single month to get it, while the A&P deal had no strings attached (except that you could only buy one bird at this price). Using the estimate of 1.5 pounds per person (before cooking), I concluded that a 15-pound bird would be enough to feed 10 people. Thus, at this price, the turkey would cost only $7.35, and that would include the cost of gravy made from the drippings.

However, Shop Rite appeared to have the best deals on all the other components of the meal. I figured that with a little planning, it should be possible to hit both stores—if not in one trip, then at some point during the week—so as to combine the cheap turkey with these other deals:
  • Stove Top stuffing is 99 cents for a 6-ounce package. This is possibly not as cheap, and certainly not as tasty or healthful, as homemade stuffing—but it makes the math a lot easier if I just assume that the stuffing will come from a box. Two boxes, which should feed 10 people, will cost $1.98.
  • Cranberry sauce, on the other hand, appears actually to be cheaper if you buy it in a can. Store-brand cranberry sauce costs only 77 cents a can, or $1.54 for two cans, while whole cranberries cost $1.99 a bag, not even counting the cost of the sugar.
  • You can get either sweet potatoes or white potatoes for $2.50 for 5 pounds (which would work out to 8 ounces of potato per person). Ironically, this makes the potatoes marginally more expensive per pound than the turkey.
  • For veggies, you can get fresh broccoli crowns at 99 cents a pound. Figure on 2 pounds for 10 people, making $1.98.
  • Lastly, we have the pies. I tried to calculate the cost of making the pies from scratch, as we always do, but I couldn't find sale prices in the flier for some of the ingredients, such as canned pumpkin. (Perhaps the pumpkin shortage has driven up the price to a level the stores don't care to advertise.) So I took a shortcut here and just used the price for Mrs. Smith's Pies: $2.24 each. One each of apple and pumpkin would come to $4.48, quite possibly less than it would cost to make them from scratch.
So, the total cost of the meal—not counting extras, such as drinks and ice cream or whipped cream for the pies—comes to $19.83. This is pretty impressive, especially considering the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) today estimated the cost of Thanksgiving dinner for 10 at $49.20—nearly 2.5 times as much.

However, there's one snag. The ultra-cheap Thanksgiving meal I've described here is one that I wouldn't actually eat, because I only eat meats that are humanely farmed. I also prefer to buy organic produce when possible (though I don't do so exclusively), and I have a preference for homemade dishes (stuffing, cranberries, pies) that don't contain a bunch of unpronounceable chemicals. So this raised a new question: what's the lowest amount it's possible to spend for a virtuous, organic, free-range Thanksgiving meal that even hard-core liberals like Lou and Peter Berryman's Uncle Dave wouldn't turn up their noses at?

This question is, of course, trickier to answer than the first one. My grocery store fliers didn't include organic versions of most items, so I had to do a little research. I found that prices on humanely farmed turkeys, at least in our area, vary considerably. A 15-pound turkey from Griggstown Quail Farm costs a jaw-dropping $149.85 ($7.99 per pound plus a flat $30 per bird), yet Stolzfus' Poultry at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market offers "fresh-killed farm-raised turkeys" for only $2.69 a pound, or $40.35 for a 15-pound turkey. Although this is less than a third as much as the Griggstown Farm turkey, it's still more than 5 times as much as the cheap one from the A&P. So for an organic and humane Thanksgiving dinner, it looks like the bird alone will cost more than twice as much as the entire meal for the ultra-frugal Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, the markup for the other ingredients isn't as high. I checked prices for these at our local Stop&Shop, Trader Joe's, and at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton. Here's what I found:
  • Organic sweet potatoes are $3.69 for 3 pounds at Trader Joe's. We'll say we can make do with one bag, since there will be stuffing as well.
  • For veggies, we can get organic frozen peas for $1.99 a pound at Trader Joe's. Assume we'll need two pounds to feed everyone, so that's another $3.98.
  • My dad makes a stuffing based around brown rice. A two-pound bag of organic brown rice is $2.99 at Stop&Shop, and we'll probably use about half of it, for $1.50. I'm going to cheat and not do the calculations to figure out the exact prices of the other ingredients (apples, onions, celery, chestnuts, and mushrooms); I'll just guess that it's another $2 or so.
  • I didn't find organic cranberries anywhere, so I had to go with the price for canned organic cranberry sauce at the Whole Earth Center: $2.79 a can. That comes to $5.58 for two cans.
  • Although I did find canned organic pumpkin at Whole Earth, I couldn't find organic versions of the other ingredients (specifically, evaporated milk). So I decided to change the menu to include two apple pies. Organic Granny Smith apples at Trader Joe's are $2.49 for 2 pounds; for two pies, we'll probably need two bags for $4.98.
  • We also need flour, sugar, and butter for the pies. Organic white flour is $1.50 a pound at Stop&Shop, and organic sugar is $1.65 a pound. I'm guessing we need a pound of each. Organic butter (for the pie crust) is $4.79 at the Stop&Shop; we'll use probably half a pound in the two pies, for $2.40.
That brings the total for all the other ingredients to $27.28, and the grand total for the meal to $67.63. This is more than 3 times as costly as our rock-bottom budget Thanksgiving meal, but interestingly, it's not even 50 percent more expensive than the AFBF's estimate. So while frugal folks who are used to buying everything on sale may experience major sticker shock when they try to go free-range and organic, those who normally pay full price may be pleasantly surprised to find that an organic version of the same meal needn't be that much more expensive.

The other takeaway from this exercise, I think, is that the organic markup is much higher for meat than for most other products. With our eco-Thanksgiving meal, the turkey accounts for nearly three-fifths of the total cost; for the budget Thanksgiving meal, it's less than two-fifths. In fact, a vegetarian version of the organic meal—all the "trimmings" without the turkey—would cost barely more than the ultra-cheap meal complete with the bird. Of course, Thanksgiving comes but once a year, and maybe for this one occasion it's worth paying extra to have the traditional meal in all its glory. But certainly on a day-to-day basis, eating vegetarian is the most obvious way to go organic without taking a big hit to the wallet.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Teach your children well

The latest Dollar Stretcher newsletter had a story in it I thought might be appealing to parents who read this blog: "A Frugal Money Lesson." The summary is that when this mom's two kids (ages five and eight) started asking why they didn't have enough money for some activity they wanted to do, the mom decided it wasn't too early to teach them a lesson about budgeting. She asked them to think of a job they'd like to do when they grew up, and then she wrote down the monthly salary for it, along with a list of expenses that would have to be paid out of that income. Then she showed them how spending more money in different categories (e.g, renting a big apartment instead of a small one) left less for other things. (The eight-year-old did the sums to see how each decision affected her budget, while the five-year-old counted out his expenditures from a stack of Monopoly money.) The outcome: both kids learned a vital financial lesson, and as a bonus, "my five-year-old learned to count by 20s."

This struck me as an incredibly useful exercise. It would be especially handy for home-schoolers, who can use it to combine a math lesson with a life lesson, but really, I think all parents could make use of it. I suspect that many American adults have never really learned to grasp the concept of opportunity costs (i.e., "doing x means you have less money for y"), and would be much better off if they'd been exposed to the idea while they were young and impressionable. Parents who teach their kids this lesson would be doing them a lifelong favor—and they would benefit themselves in the short term, as their kids might stop pestering them for goodies that don't fit into the budget. (Or at least, if they do, they'll have to accept the logic of the answer, "Buying you a new toy will leave us less money for food, remember?")

Monday, November 7, 2011

Generic house

This weekend we went to visit a friend whose house has lots of what can only be called "character." I mean this in both the best and the worst sense of the word. The house has lots of interior detail—a stone fireplace, solid wood paneling, exposed beams, vintage doors and doorknobs—but it also has crumbling tile in the bathroom, acoustic tile falling off the ceiling, and a stove that hasn't worked for over a decade. I often find myself feeling frustrated in this house, because it's such a neat house in so many ways and it's not being shown to advantage.

I think the reason this bothers me so much is that our house is almost exactly the opposite: it's solid and well-maintained, but it has no detail whatsoever. In fact, I can't even identify an architectural style for it: when we bought it, the listing described it as a ranch, but it doesn't have the open, sprawling feel of a ranch at all. It almost feels more like a Cape Cod, with its rectangular shape, small rooms, and central hallway—but it it lacks the steep roof and central chimney that are the hallmarks of this style. Basically, it's just a snug, plain little postwar box, with no distinguishing features of any kind.

This makes it frustrating for me when I try to plan any kind of home improvement project, because I'm a big believer in working with the existing architectural style of a house, adding on in ways that enhance rather than disguise its original design. Yet with our house, I feel like I really have no style to work with. Suppose, for instance, that I want to add on a covered front entrance: what kind of addition would be in keeping with the style of the house? I can't come up with an answer to that, because the house itself is so plain that it seems like the only way to work with the style is to leave it plain and add no adornments at all.

Maybe I should just think of it like vanilla ice cream: since it's not a strong flavor itself, you can add anything you like to it, from fresh raspberries to creme de menthe. So if you have a house with no basic style, you can add on any style you like and it won't clash. But would trying to make our postwar box into a Craftsman bungalow just look pretentious?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

First Snowday

If the beginning of spring—or at least the beginning of the end of winter—is marked by First Washday, then I guess we've just hit its counterpart at the other end of the year: First Snowday, the first snowfall of the year. Here in New Jersey, this event usually comes in November or December, but this year, for some reason, it's arrived before Halloween. Currently, they're predicting accumulations of one to three inches by tomorrow morning. Fortunately the temperature is supposed to stay above freezing tomorrow, so with any luck the neighborhood kids won't have to go Trick-or-Treating in the snow on Monday. But sheesh, what is up with this? I expect to be raking leaves in October, not shoveling snow.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Built from scratch

Just a quick post to show off Brian's latest woodworking project: a second bookshelf for the living room, to accommodate our inexorably expanding collection of books (and some of our videos). Like the one next to it, this one is designed to fit a particular set of specifications:
  1. to maximize the use of space, it has mostly small shelves that will just fit a paperback book (or a video), with one big shelf on top for bigger books;
  2. the top shelf is within my reach (not much over six feet); and
  3. the bottom is specially designed to fit over the baseboard heater without blocking it. (This is the main reason we had to custom-make these bookcases instead of just buying a Billy the Bookcase from IKEA.)
This adds one more item to our ever-growing list of furniture pieces we own that have been either built from scratch or modified in some way. In fact, I once went through and figured out that pretty much every room in our house contains at least one item we've built, refinished, or fixed up in some way:
  • In the living room, we have these two bookcases and the futon frame (bought unfinished), plus the shelves that hold our media computer and the computer itself. Also, a little bracket that Brian built to hold the curtain pull-cord when the original bracket it came with broke.
  • In the office, we have my desk (basically a plywood top rigged to sit atop a yard-sale-purchased cabinet at one end and a small chest, originally a nightstand, at the other), as well as our nifty homemade cat scratching post and a little track-thingy (the technical term) that Brian made to hold the sliding doors, because they kept popping out of the original track-thingy.
  • In the back room, there are a couple of wooden crates we bought at Michael's and refinished to hold our recycling. (These are sitting on a beautiful homemade table we got from my father-in-law, originally built to fit into a specific spot in our old apartment's kitchen where it effectively doubled our counter space, but that piece doesn't count since we didn't make it ourselves.)
  • In the kitchen, we have our spiffy new rolling pantry shelves, a couple of other shelves we added to various cabinets, a rolling cart from Ikea that we bought unfinished, and a spiffy glassware rack that Brian made. Also, all the cabinets themselves, which we refinished, and the little tilt-out drawer Brian installed under the sink.
  • In the upstairs bathroom, there's the vanity, which we redid from top to bottom, refinishing the wood parts, replacing the hardware, and painting the countertop. (I take a particular pride in this piece since it's the only one I did mostly myself.)
  • In the big downstairs room (which we still don't have a good name for), Brian constructed all the windowsills and window jambs from scratch, as well as refinishing the shelf that sits alongside the stairs (which you can see in the picture at the top of this blog page). We also installed the paper floor, and in one corner there's the modified corner shelf from IKEA that Brian adjusted to fit over the baseboard heater.
  • And in the downstairs bath, there's the new vanity, the refinished mirror that we stripped off the old medicine chest, the repainted corner cabinet, and the covers Brian built for the heaters. Not to mention all the other pieces we installed ourselves, even if we didn't build them from scratch: the new sink and toilet, the tile floor, the repaired and repainted walls, the exhaust fan, and all the lighting fixtures. Basically, there's hardly a part of this room we haven't altered.
That leaves only the bedroom with nothing in it of our own device. (Now, what could we add to rectify that situation? Maybe I should learn to quilt.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Repair or replace revisited

Over the past few months, I've done a series of posts on the question of "Repair or replace?" I discussed a series of decisions I've had to make about various items (an old bike, a computer, a pair of shoes, a coat) that needed repair, and how I went about deciding whether it was better to fix them or just go ahead and replace them. In one of these posts, I bemoaned the lack of any useful rules of thumb that can help with this decision (except for specific items, like cars and major appliances).

Well, it looks like I should moan no more. Jeff Yeager, the self-dubbed "Ultimate Cheapskate," has published a post on this very subject at The Daily Green, in which he proposes several guidelines for the repair-vs.-replace decision. According to Yeager, you should repair an item if:

1) the cost of the repair is not more than half the cost of a replacement item (he calls this "the 50 percent rule"),
2) the item itself is likely to appreciate in value over time (e.g., antiques of any kind), or
3) the repair is a fairly trivial one (e.g., replacing a faulty electrical cord or a missing shirt button).

On the other hand, you should opt to replace it if:

1) the cost of the repair is more than half the cost of a replacement,
2) a replacement will pay for itself in reduced running costs (e.g., a more efficient appliance), or
3) the replacement is fairly inexpensive (e.g., non-designer clothing items), so you don't stand to save much by doing the repair.

In light of Yeager's rules, it appears that our rather fumbling decision-making process did lead us to the correct choice in most of the cases I mentioned. Repairing my husband's old bike was the right decision, because we could do the repair for about $80, while a new bike (judging by what we saw at the bike shop) would cost at least $500. Replacing my old Mac, by contrast, was the right decision, because the slowness of the old computer was actually costing me money (by making it take longer to complete work assignments that involved a lot of Internet research, and thus cutting my hourly wage). Replacing Brian's old shoes was the right call, because the new ones were cheap (around $35), actually less expensive than repairing the old shoes. And by the same token, I'm better off replacing my old coat rather than trying to repair it, because the repair would cost as much or more than a replacement and might not work at all.

All that makes sense from a purely economic perspective. But what about the environmental costs?  Shouldn't I try to factor in the resources (materials and energy) that will be used to make the replacement items, and the problems associated with disposing of the old ones? As soon as I put the question to myself in those terms, the answer became obvious: only if I actually do dispose of them. If I simply pass them on to someone else, then there is no waste created—and the resources used in the manufacture of a new item will be saved down the line, because someone else will be buying (or otherwise acquiring) a secondhand item who might otherwise have had to buy one new!

So, I can buy myself a new computer, and Freecycle the old one to help out some impoverished student who just needs a reliable machine to type papers on; I can buy myself a new coat, and give the old one back to Goodwill (where I got it in the first place) to be bought by someone with bigger shoulders than mine; Brian can buy a new pair of shoes, but hold on to the old pair as a backup (thus extending the life of the new ones). In all these cases—counterintuitive as it seems—buying a new item is the best choice from an ecofrugal perspective; it saves the most money and, in terms of other resource use, it's a wash. Who woulda thunk it?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hershey the enslaver

So, for the past year or so I've been boycotting Hershey's chocolate because of its use of forced and child labor on cocoa plantations. Yes, I know this is a problem everywhere in West Africa, and the other major chocolate manufacturers have been involved in it too. But ten years back, they all signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, committing to clean up their supply chains and address these abuses. To date, all the other chocolate manufacturers have taken at least some steps toward complying. All except Hershey. In fact, they refuse even to say who their suppliers are—so there's no way for any third party to find out whether they are using slave labor or not. The company's recalcitrance has made it the target of a campaign called "Raise the Bar, Hershey" that is petitioning the company to (for a start) trace its supply chain, ask its suppliers to stop using forced labor, and add at least one Fair Trade-certified chocolate bar to its lineup. (You can read more and download a detailed report on the company's practices here.)

It was only today that I learned that Hershey is also exploiting workers right here in the United States. Oh, not American citizens, of course—not people who might actually be able to do something about it. These are foreign students here as part of a "cultural exchange" program to experience American culture. Instead, they're working long shifts in a Hershey's warehouse and being threatened with deportation for failing to meet production schedules. The money they're making isn't even enough to cover the cost of the visas they paid for to take part in this "cultural" experience.

What's interesting is that Hershey's approach to this labor problem on American soil is pretty much the same as the one it's taken with its chocolate: know nothing so you can deny everything. In the case of the student workers, they claim that this particular plant was being managed by a vendor and they knew nothing about the abuses taking place there. And with regard to the folks who grow their cocoa, they simply refuse to trace their supply chain so that they can claim they don't know a thing about any abuses taking place on the cocoa plantations. In other words, they simply refuse to look.

I've generally tried to avoid being too overtly political in this blog, but this has pushed me over the edge. I am going to go against my usual practice and ask outright: will you, all you folks who read this blog, join me in my boycott and spread the word to others? Ultimately, I think nothing but a direct hit to the pocketbook is going to get Hershey to take any action.

Oh, and in case you're wondering what the alternative is (since buying nothing but Fair-Trade-certified chocolate would make this a pretty expensive Halloween): M&M/Mars has committed to get 100 percent of its chocolate from sustainable sources by the year 2020, and they're on track to meet the 10 percent mark this year. So to encourage this positive commitment from a major company, I'm getting little Snickers bars for Halloween this year. (The fact that I really like Snickers bars is just a minor bonus.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Technical difficulties

I've just heard that some users are having trouble posting comments to this blog. I don't know how many people are affected by the problem or how long it's been going on. To help me gather more data, could I ask my regular readers to try writing comments in response to this post and see whether they go through? And if you try to post a comment and it doesn't work, could you e-mail me (those of you who have my e-mail address) and let me know? Thanks.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The high cost of living apart

Back around Valentine's Day, I wrote a post about the ways in which it's cheaper to live as part of a couple. I noted that couples can also have some expenses that singles don't (gifts and "romantic dinners," for instance), but they pale in comparison to the cost of maintaining two separate households instead of one. Now, a recent article in the New Brunswick Star-Ledger speculates that this may actually be one reason why good old New Joysey has the lowest divorce rate in the nation: "because up here, well, it's just too expensive to break up."

There are other factors involved, of course. The article mentions several: couples in the Northeast are likely to wait longer to marry than Southerners, for instance, and they're more likely to live together before marriage (reducing the chances of a hasty decision). But the financial factor appears to be a significant one. One interviewee says the "half a house" he now rents in Somerville, NJ costs $500 more per month than the mortgage on his old house in Atlanta—meaning that the cost of maintaining two homes adds up to "thousands of dollars a month." The fact that average incomes are higher also adds up to "more money to fight about." A lawyer quoted in the article says that when she tells clients how much they're likely to end up paying in alimony, "their faces turn stone white and they look at me as if it's the second coming."

So I'd like to offer this addendum to my original post: while it may indeed be cheaper to live as a couple, getting married in order to save money is definitely not a good idea. Marrying in haste is a good recipe for a short marriage and an expensive divorce, and that's far costlier than staying single in the first place.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A no-money economy

A friend of mine recently e-mailed around a link to an article about the invention of money, which contests the popular view that money originally developed as a more efficient alternative to a barter system. The author, David Graeber, points out that present-day societies that don't use money typically don't use barter either: "What anthropologists have in fact observed where money is not used is not a system of explicit lending and borrowing, but a very broad system of non-enumerated credits and debts." In other words, instead of "I'll give you a good cow for a dozen fur pelts," it's "I'll give you this cow today, and then you will owe me a big favor, which I can call in when I need to." Where barter does occur, he says, it usually takes place "between strangers, people who have no moral relations with one another"—not members of a community who can count on social forces to back up their mutual obligations.

This interested me because I realized that I happen to be part of just such a money-free "economy": my local Freecycle group. Within this group, goods are only given and received, never exchanged. Some basic ground rules are that
  1. you can never ask for any sort of compensation for any item you offer,
  2. you're supposed to offer at least one item before you start requesting items for yourself, and
  3. it's considered rude to ask for anything too big or expensive (i.e., "don't ask for an extravagant item like a diamond ring which we'd all like to have").
So there is a sort of vague notion of reciprocity—you're supposed to do some giving, as well as taking—but no one is keeping an exact tally.  More to the point, your transactions—giving and receiving—won't necessarily involve the same people (in fact, they almost never do). But you offer stuff to the group, and you receive stuff from the group, and in this way some sort of karmic balance is achieved. In other words, we have apparently reinvented one of those pre-monetary societies Graeber is talking about, in which other social factors play a much bigger role in any transaction than the notion of giving and getting tit for tat.

In fact, Freecycle just might be a near-perfect Marxist economy: "From each according to his ability and to each according to his need." It's not a complete economy, of course: the goods people have to give away aren't enough to meet all the needs of all the group's members. But within its own limitations, it lives up to this ideal quite well.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Another ecofrugal home show

Home-makeover shows, like the ones on HGTV, are one of my guilty pleasures. However, after a few episodes, I often find myself getting frustrated at how wasteful their approach to home design is. With a few exceptions (like my all-time favorite, Wasted Spaces), it seems like the only way they know to redo a room is to tear everything out, throw it away, and replace it with new stuff. Sometimes there's no mention at all of how much all that is costing—and even with shows like Bang for Your Buck, which is supposedly all about spending your money wisely, the families featured are often working with five- or even six-figure budgets for a single room. For most of us living in the real world, that's not merely unrealistic, it's outrageous.

So when I came across a few episodes on the A&E network site of a show called "100 Dollar Makeover," you can imagine how my ears pricked up. I watched the first episode, and it did not disappoint. This is a show where a team of three experts—a home organizer, a carpenter, and a designer—goes into a badly cluttered home and fixes the problem areas for just $100 per room. To stay within this ultra-slim budget, they use a variety of ecofrugal strategies, such as:
  • Building from scratch. The carpenter shows off his skills by designing and building a custom-made piece to fit the space for only the cost of the lumber.
  • Creative reuse. Furniture pieces that don't work in one space may find a new home and a new purpose in one of the other rooms. Not only that, but they go rummaging through the rest of the house to find other items they can use in building their custom pieces. (In the episode I watched, they scavenged medium-density fiberboard, vinyl-covered cushions that they recovered for their new seating area, and a set of twin sheets that they turned into a window treatment for the bedroom.)
  • Buying secondhand. Though they do make some items themselves, their three-day schedule doesn't allow them to construct everything from scratch, so some items get purchased from a big secondhand store (possibly a Habitat for Humanity ReStore or some local thrift shop). They even manage to talk the seller down on the price.
Another plus for this show is that all the members of the three-person team actually seem like real people—down-to-earth, humorous and occasionally a bit frazzled. Since many home shows have overly perky hosts with perfect teeth and made-for-TV personalities, who somehow manage always to sound like they're reading from a script even when they're ad-libbing, a show hosted by three regular humans is very refreshing.

The only down side: as far as I can tell, there are only three episodes on the A&E website. Maybe I can find a friend who gets A&E...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The DIY question

Last week's Tip Hero newsletter (which I'm only just getting around to reading) has a handy article addressing the question, "To DIY or Not to DIY?" In a nutshell, it says the times to hire a professional are:
(1) when doing the job yourself could get you killed (e.g., roofing or major electrical work);
(2) when doing the job yourself would take way more time than you're prepared to invest; or
(3) when doing the job yourself would require the purchase of expensive tools that you might never need again.
I would add to that list (4) when doing the job incorrectly could result in damage that would cost far more to repair than the original job itself. Other than that, I agree with the recommendations in the article, both general and specific. It explains why we used to change the oil on our old Honda (hard to mess up) but didn't attempt more major repairs (too big a risk of causing serious damage), and why we did all the work on our basement remodel except the wiring (too time-consuming—it would have taken us months to do what the professional did in one day). We have, on the other hand, done nearly all the projects the article lists as "Things You Can Definitely DIY."

The little video that accompanies the article is cute, too. I've never had to deal with a broken light bulb, but if I ever do, I'll definitely try the potato trick.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When it pays to pay more

In the reports I write for ConsumerSearch, we usually identify both a "best" product and a "budget" choice. The best product, as a rule, is the one that does the best in professional tests and gets the most positive reviews from users—in short, the best one money can buy. The budget model, typically, is one that doesn't perform as well as the top-rated model, but still does a respectable job for a significantly lower price.

As a consumer, I'm generally more likely to go with the budget model than the best one. One of the usual principles of my ecofrugal lifestyle is never to pay more for anything than I really need to, and so I'll choose the best-priced product that meets my minimum standards of quality. However, in the past week I've realized that there's an exception to this rule. When it comes to goods, I'm inclined to compromise on quality to get the best price—but with services, it's the other way around.

This came home to me last week when I went to my dentist for a filling. Once the Novocaine wore off, I found it hurt to bite down on that tooth (which was particularly annoying, because it was a tooth that hadn't hurt at all before the filling was done). I went back to the dentist and he adjusted the height of the filling—which hurt like blazes, though he didn't seem to notice when I yelped—and said that if that didn't fix the problem, it meant that I "couldn't tolerate" composite fillings and would need to have it replaced with an amalgam filling. That sounded pretty strange to me, since I'd had composite fillings done before with no problems, so I decided to go to my old dentist, Dr. Brown, for a second opinion.

From the minute I sat in the chair, the difference between him and my new dentist was like night and day. He examined the tooth (something the other dentist hadn't actually bothered to do) and told me that part of the tooth that was causing me pain wasn't the filling; it was the exposed dentin around it. This could have been sealed over at the time the filling was done, but to do it now would mean redoing the filling. So he put on a fluoride treatment to speed up healing and advised me to give it a couple of weeks to recover—and he didn't even charge me for the consultation. Based on this experience, I decided on the spot that not only would I go back to Dr. Brown if I needed the filling redone—even if it meant paying out of pocket—but that I would also switch dental plans next year, so that I could start going to him on a regular basis. The traditional dental plan, which lets you choose any dentist, costs more than the DMO we're on now—but if the extra money can save me another experience like the one I'm having with this filling, it will be well worth it.

When I told my dad about this experience, he applauded my decision. He said that although he and Mom are a bit tight-fisted themselves (I come by it honestly), they "would never cheap out on health care." I thought this over, and I came to the conclusion that this rule holds true for other services as well. It's worth paying more to get work you can count on, not just from your doctor or your dentist, but also from your auto mechanic, your hairstylist, the contractors who work on your house—basically, from anyone who's doing a job that it's important to you to have done right. And since another principle of my ecofrugal lifestyle is "Don't pay someone else to do a job you can handle yourself," that description applies to pretty much every service professional I hire.

So I no longer feel guilty—even a little bit—that when we needed our side stoop repaired this spring, I hired the contractor with the highest bid (but the most competent assessment of the problem), rather than the one with the lowest bid (who kept changing his mind about what needed to be done, and his quoted price along with it). At the time, I thought maybe I was going against my ecofrugal principles by paying more than I needed to. But I just hadn't come up yet with the corollary to that rule: "If you do need to pay more to get what you really need, then don't hesitate to do it." It's money well spent if it saves you from major headaches down the road.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The pantry project, part 2


The pantry project is now complete! We had one lucky break when the existing shelves came out more easily than expected, so the wallboard was left intact. Brian concluded that instead of building a whole plywood box to insert into the existing cavity, he could simply screw wooden slats into the studs to support the new rolling shelves, which would make the whole project both faster and cheaper. We did have one setback when his extra-careful measurements of the space turned out to be a bit too precise—the drawer fit exactly, but it was so tightly wedged in that it couldn't move. So we had to rip out one of the 3/8-inch support slats, patch and repaint the wall, and then install 1/4-inch slats along that side instead. But we still managed to get everything done within a week: drawers finished, supports built, drawers installed, and all the food out of its temporary digs and back onto the shelves.

I'm actually a little surprised that the finished pantry doesn't hold more. Since we added one new shelf and extended the length of all the shelves, I would have expected it to accommodate a lot more stuff than the old pantry. But what you see in this picture is merely everything we pulled out of the old pantry, plus two cereal containers that used to sit on top of the fridge and a few extra boxes of pasta. The contents are better organized now, however, and a lot more accessible. And we expect the organization to improve more over time, as we adjust to and make modifications to the new system.

Ironic that it took us four years to get around to tackling this project, but once we actually got started it was done in a week, with less than $300 spent. I wonder how many of the other big projects we've been putting off could be completed as easily once we get up the gumption to do them.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Saling, saling

This weekend is the annual town-wide yard sale in Highland Park. The normal fee for a yard sale permit is waived, and a local Realtor helps to publicize the event, providing signs and maps showing where sales can be found. It's one of my favorite events, since it concentrates such a large number of yard sales in a relatively small space that you're practically guaranteed to find something of interest. Admittedly, we've never been able to duplicate the haul we brought home four years ago, when we'd just moved into this house and we loaded up on tools, including a push mower, a circular saw, and a pair of pruning shears. But we can always manage to find at least a book or an article of clothing, which is more than we usually come away with from a randomly encountered sale.

This year, we didn't do too badly. We set out Saturday morning right after breakfast, and we managed to find a new guitar case for me (to replace the old one that succumbed to mold), a couple of carpet samples that we can use as needed to refurbish our homemade cat scratching post, a book, a puzzle, and a few random gifts for nephews and nieces before hunger, sore feet, and an unexpected squall of rain sent us home again. We also had ample opportunity to see many yard sales, and to observe the difference between a good sale and a bad one. Here's a short list of general rules I've come up with for running a decent, user-friendly yard sale. (Of the many sales we saw yesterday, almost none had followed all of them.)
  1. Arrange items so people can see them. If you have clothes, either hang them up or lay them out side by side on a table, not in a huge pile. If you have books, put them on shelves, or arrange them in boxes with their spines facing up so people can read the titles. If shoppers have to rummage through boxes just to see what's available, most of them won't find it worth the effort.
  2. Group like items together—all clothes on one table, kitchen items on another, tools on a third. Some of the sales we encountered seemed to be nothing but boxes of randomly grouped items, perhaps just hauled down from the attic that morning.
  3. Give people room to move around. Some sales we visited looped round from the front yard to the back, up a driveway or a narrow walkway lined with tables so that there was barely room for one person to stop and look, let alone for others to pass by.
  4. Put prices on items. This was the rule most frequently ignored at yesterday's sales. I think we only saw one sale that actually had every item priced. It was a real nuisance having to ask the price of any item we had an interest in—assuming we could find someone to ask. Which brings me to the fifth and most obvious rule:
  5. Have someone there at all times who is obviously in charge. If buyers can't find anyone to take their money or answer their questions, they'll walk away empty-handed (or perhaps even walk away with stuff they haven't paid for).
As a side note, another interesting lesson we learned from our morning of yard-saling was that if you walk around carrying a guitar case, even if there's no guitar in it, people are a lot more likely to strike up a conversation with you. Before we bought the case, we mingled among the other shoppers more or less unnoticed; afterwards, when Brian was carrying the guitar case around with some of our smaller purchases in it, someone at nearly every sale we visited called out, "Hey, where'd you get the guitar?"

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Repair or replace, part 3

You know, this whole question of whether to repair things or replace them hinges on the idea that it's actually possible to get them repaired. I'm beginning to wonder whether that's true anymore.

A couple of years ago, I bought a fall coat at the Goodwill store—a short one to wear during the months when my winter coat was too heavy and a sweater not heavy enough. The sleeves were too long and it had big, ridiculous 80s-style shoulder pads, but it was made of good, dark-grey wool and fit me well in the torso, so I figured it was still a good deal for six bucks. I just took out the shoulder pads, rolled up the sleeves, and wore it like that for two years.

This year, with the chilly weather approaching, I decided to take the coat to a tailor and see how much it would cost to alter it so that it would fit me properly. It might seem silly to spend $40 on alterations for a $6 coat, but I figured it would still be cheaper and less wasteful than buying a new one. So on Wednesday afternoon, I took the coat to a tailor shop I'd passed by often, about half a mile from my house—only to find that it had gone out of business. I remembered another shop a few blocks away, but when I got there it was closed, with a sign in the window saying that during the month of September they'd be open only from 8am to noon. (What kind of business closes at noon?)

This was starting to get frustrating, but I decided to give it one more try. The next morning, I showed up at the tailor shop well before 9am, carrying my coat. I showed it to the seamstress and explained what I needed done to it, and she said, in effect, "That can't be done." As best I could make out from her broken English, the only way she knew of "taking in" a coat was to remove fabric from the back seam, which would make the coat too tight and leave the shoulders as big as ever.

Well, I knew that what I was asking for wasn't impossible. I don't have the skill to reset a sleeve myself, but at least I know that it can be done. So I took the coat down the street to a dry cleaner that had a sign in the window saying "tailoring and alterations." Once again, I showed the coat and explained the problem. This time, the proprietor didn't actually say it was impossible, but she said it was "probably no good." Her English wasn't very good either, so I didn't quite understand what the problem was, but I did manage to grasp that the whole job would cost me $80 and they still couldn't guarantee the coat would fit afterwards. Given that I could buy a whole new coat that would definitely fit for less than $80, that didn't seem like much of a bargain.

The whole experience left me feeling sort of baffled. I admit, I find it frustrating that it should cost more to repair an existing coat than to buy a whole new one, materials, labor, and all. But I can at least understand why it's the case: the new coat is made by unskilled workers earning a pittance for their labor in Thailand or someplace, while the repair is done by skilled workers here in the U.S. who expect a reasonable fee for their efforts. But can it really be possible that these skilled laborers don't even exist anymore? That nowadays, people who call themselves tailors and charge $80 for a repair can't even manage to reset a pair of sleeves? Has our society really come to the point where, at least where clothes are concerned, throwing it out and buying a new one is the only option?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The pantry project

One thing I've wanted ever since we first bought this house, four years back, is more pantry space. Although we have a lot more space now overall than we used to have at our old apartment, one thing I was very sorry to give up was a huge, sunny pantry that ran the full width of the kitchen, with floor-to-ceiling shelves that made our entire assortment of food visible at a glance. Our current kitchen, though better in most respects, offers only a narrow, deep closet with four shelves for food storage. We installed a small wooden cube at the bottom to make a fifth shelf, which helped a bit, but the biggest problem with it is that the stuff toward the back isn't easily accessible. You can't see what you have (one of the reasons we found it necessary to create our "canventory" to keep track) and even if you know what's back there, you may have to pull out several intervening items to get to it.

The best way we could think of to solve this problem without embarking on a major kitchen remodel was to install sliding shelves in the pantry. These would both give us more square footage (since we could easily squeeze in a sixth shelf in the available space) and make all the space more usable. And now, after four years and a number of other projects, we've finally decided it's time to go for it.

Since our pantry apparently isn't a standard depth, Brian originally intended to make custom-built shelves that would use every square inch of the available space. However, when he looked into the cost of the hardware that would be required, he discovered that building the shelves from scratch would cost as much as or more than buying them ready-made. So we decided to sacrifice an inch or so off each shelf in exchange for the convenience of having them arrive ready-built, as well as the knowledge that they'd all be a uniform size. There are many sites on the Web selling these, but a little research revealed that they all offer pretty much identical models, so we decided on the standard sliding shelf from KitchenShelves.com, which offered the best price. They arrived yesterday, neatly packed in two large boxes, and now all we have to do is stain them, finish them, and—the tricky part—install them.

The reason the last part is tricky is that in order to install them, we have to dismantle the original pantry. First we need to remove the doors and the cabinet frame, ideally without damaging it, since we'll want to put it back at the end. Then we need to rip out the old shelves, which probably won't come loose without a struggle and will end up taking some portion of the wall with them. And after that, depending on where the studs turn out to be, we will most likely have to build a plywood box to fill the whole pantry space so that we will have a secure base to attach the shelf hardware to. (This is not unlike a project Karl did in the first season—in fact, possibly the series premiere—of Wasted Spaces.)

So this is how we expect to spend most of this holiday weekend (and possibly some additional weekends to come). In the meantime, our food is living in temporary digs on bricks-and-boards shelving in the spare room. As the project progresses, I'll keep you posted on the (we hope not too) gory details and the big reveal at the end of our (we hope) spacious, finished pantry.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Repair or replace, part 2

The ecofrugal lifestyle rests on a few basic principles, one of which—to invert a phrase from Aldous Huxley—is "mending is better than ending." In other words, repairing an item is usually both cheaper and greener than replacing it. Usually. But as I noted a month ago in my "Repair or replace?" post, the decision isn't always that straightforward. Sometimes the cost of repairing an item exceeds that of a cheap replacement, causing the "eco" and "frugal" halves of ecofrugality, which normally go together like chocolate and peanut butter, to come into conflict.

This week we came across another example. My husband's sturdy workboots became damaged beyond repair—the sole completely split in half, and since it's a molded sole, we couldn't just resole them. We couldn't complain too much, since the boots were free in the first place (gleaned from a pile of stuff our former neighbors discarded when they moved), but since they were his everyday footwear, he needed something to replace them. So our first thought was to try repairing an old pair of shoes that he'd owned for nearly 20 years but had worn very little in the past ten because all the tread had worn off the sole, making them slippery in the rain. I figured that for around $20, we could resole these and possibly make them last another ten years.

Ha ha, silly me. When I took them to our local shoe shop, they informed me that this type of sole cost $60 to replace. I might have thought it was worth the money to extend the life of an otherwise good pair of shoes, but we'd already done a little poking around in a Famous Footwear and found that a new pair of shoes in the same brand and similar style would only cost around $70. So the cost of repairing a 20-year-old pair of shoes, with who knows how much life left in the uppers, would be 85 percent as much as a whole new pair. Eco says repair, frugal says replace...help, mental overload!

In the end, we went to Sears and bought him a new pair of sturdy work shoes, which cost $35 on sale and have proved to be very comfortable. But we still haven't come to any firm decision about what to do with the old pair of shoes. Since they have sentimental value as well as usefulness, he doesn't want to throw them out, so it seems like we might as well repair them so they can be used. But on the other hand, is it really worth $60 to give him what would now be only a secondary pair of shoes, since he has a decent pair for every day? Will spending the $60 now save us money in the long run, eliminating the need for future $35 stopgap shoes that might only last a year or two? Or will it be money down the drain, since the uppers will soon go the same way as the soles? Is it truly ecofrugal, in this case, to repair them, or are we better off just keeping them as an extra pair to be worn on sunny days only until they finally fall apart completely?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Spend where it counts (or, a $45 band on a $13 watch)

The watch I wear every day is a cheap Timex Carriage model that I bought nearly ten years ago at Target. I think I paid $13 for it, on sale. I chose it at the time because it met my fairly basic requirements:

1) A dial face with an hour hand, a minute hand, a second hand, and all twelve numbers. (You'd be surprised how hard this last feature is to find in a women's watch.)
2) A bracelet-type metal band. (Cloth ones wear out too quickly, and the metal "expansion bracelets" always seem to snag the tiny hairs on my arm.)

Those were the only features I specifically wanted, and they're pretty much the only features I got. The watch does also have a little built-in night light that has turned out to be handy. But other than that, it's got no bells and whistles: no calendar, no calculator, no stopwatch. It's just a very basic watch—about as close as you can get to the Platonic ideal of a Wristwatch.

For a cheap watch, it's held up surprisingly well—or at least, the timepiece itself has. After a few years of everyday use, however, the plating on the two-toned metal band wore completely through, exposing the base metal underneath, which gave me a rash as it rubbed against my skin. My first attempt at an ecofrugal fix for this problem was to paint over the exposed metal with nail polish, and that kept the watch wearable for a while—but eventually, the links got clogged with dried polish. So I replaced the band with a similar one, but within a year, the plating on the new band started wearing off just as the old one had. Rather than buy another cheap band, I went back to the store and asked if they had one made of solid stainless steel. They did—but it cost $45, more than three times what I'd originally paid for the watch. And I had to make a hasty decision: is it really worth it to put a $45 band on a $13 watch?

My conclusion: not only is it worth it, it's the only choice that really makes sense. What I need from a watch itself is extremely simple: all it has to do is keep good time, and a cheap watch does the job just as well as an expensive one. A cheap band, by contrast, doesn't meet my needs, at least not for very long. Buying a new, cheap watchband every year would cost more in the long run, and surely be more wasteful, than investing $45 in a good one. For my needs, a cheap watch and a high-quality band is simply the best combination.

It seems to me that the same principle applies to most purchases. It almost always makes sense to spend money on the features you want and skimp on the features you don't want. For example, if you have an old car you're happy with, but it lacks some new feature you want (say, cruise control), it makes sense to spend the money to have it added, even if it's more than the value of the old car itself. It will still cost less than a whole new car, so why trade in an old car you're happy with for a new one with lots of features you don't want just to get the one that you do?

Of course, sometimes in order to get the one feature you want, you have to accept some others as well, because the manufacturer doesn't give you a choice. On a new car, for instance, a feature you want (such as extra airbags) may be available only as part of an "option package" that also includes power windows and GPS and other assorted bells and whistles. But by looking carefully at all the alternatives, you should at least be able to avoid taking any features you actually prefer not to have. For example: as some of you may remember from my "Repair or Replace?" post, I recently bought a new computer. All I wanted was more memory and faster processing speed, but buying a new Mac Mini meant that I also got all the additional "features" of the Lion operating system—such as a complete lack of back-compatibility with all existing PowerPC applications. Besides having to abandon my beloved Eudora mail client for a new one, I couldn't use my existing version of Office, and the new version I was forced to "upgrade" to crashed all the time. So I sent it back to Apple and then, after a bit more research, bought last year's Mini instead from a reseller called PowerMax. (Note to anyone in the market for a computer: I recommend them. Their prices are good and their customer service is terrific.) In my case, this "downgrade" was actually an upgrade.

So now I'm happily settled in with my one-year-old Mac, running seven-year-old software, hooked up to an eight-year-old monitor and printer. Because after all, if all I need is a better band, why replace the watch?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weather permitting

It occurred to me yesterday, as it has before, just how much of the ecofrugal life is contingent on the phrase, "weather permitting." For example:

Yesterday Brian rode his bike to work (having just finished installing the new rear wheel and brake line). He usually bikes to work during the warmer months, unless he needs to get in particularly early or to stay particularly late. But he can't do it during the winter, because it's too cold and, more to the point, too dark. And he has to skip it on those summer days when the temperature is over 100 or there's the threat of a thunderstorm. So although biking to work is an undeniable win-win-win in ecofrugal terms—a way to save money, help the environment and get some exercise all at once—it's also a habit that depends on the weather and climate.

I did a load of laundry yesterday and hung it up on the line. I generally use the clothesline during the summer, even if it means having to put off doing the laundry until the forecast calls for sunshine. But I can't do it in the winter, because the clothes would just freeze solid. (I've heard of people who do it anyway and claim that they're "mostly dry" once they thaw. But I have my limits.) So once again, even though drying clothes for free with sunlight, rather than paying to do it with fossil fuels, is an ecofrugal no-brainer, it's still a practice that only works when the weather allows it.

I also took a walk in the afternoon, as I do on all but the very hottest or coldest days. It was a particularly ecofrugal walk, as I stopped in at the local farmer's market and, after that, at the nearby thrift shop. Locally grown peaches for $2 a pound and pants in good condition for $2 a pair—a definite ecofrugal triumph. But it's a trip I wouldn't have been able to make in the winter or the spring, because our local farmers' market is only open from July through November. (It's also only open on Fridays until 4pm, which means it's really only available to those of us who don't work bankers' hours, which has always struck me as a bit annoying. But I guess they can't really do it over the weekend, because there are other markets to set up in neighboring towns on Saturday and Sunday.) So this particular ecofrugal habit is one that's only available at certain times of year. (The thrift shop is open year-round, but only for a very few hours a week; I'm much less likely to pass by there at a time when it happens to be open if I'm not on my way to the farmers' market.)

Finally, in the evening, we went to a free concert at the park in Hopewell. This happened to be Broadside Electric, a band we particularly know and love, but we've gone to other outdoor concerts like this in our area without knowing the band, simply because they're fun and free of charge. But this ecofrugal form of entertainment is—once again—only available in the summertime. Even if it weren't too cold for outdoor entertainment in the winter, the light wouldn't last late enough to make it practical.

Basically, what it comes down to is that it's a lot easier to be ecofrugal in the summertime than it is in the winter. And that's true not just of a few special events, but of our whole lifestyle. We generally manage to get through the summer without using air conditioning more than two or three times, but we'd never get through the winter without heat.

Perhaps if I want to take my ecofrugal lifestyle to the next level, I should be concentrating on ways to save money and natural resources during the colder months. So far, all I can think of is canning and freezing garden surplus (which would be a great idea if we ever had any surplus) and wearing layers to stay warm (which I already do, and I still can't seen to tolerate any temperature below 68 degrees). So maybe, like a squirrel storing up nuts, I should really make a start now on gathering nuggets of ecofrugal wisdom to get me through the winter. Does anyone out there have any nuggets to contribute?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Self-employment, self-sufficiency

Thought for today: working from home is a big help with living an ecofrugal lifestyle. The time that I don't spend commuting, for instance, can be used for hanging a load of laundry—so I save on gas for the car and gas for the dryer at the same time. And since I set my own hours, I can run errands on foot in the middle of the day and get a bit of exercise at the same time.

Of course, the down side is that if I didn't have a husband working full-time, all the money I save with my little ecofrugal habits, and a lot more, would be eaten up by private health insurance. I'm sure hoping the state health pools that kick in three years from now will fix that.